Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Small Towns, Big Ideas for Cycling

Last year I accidentally went on holiday to the Netherlands. It was accidental in the sense that I intended to meet somebody in Amsterdam for work, my teenage daughters had intimated that they might still be prepared to cycle, but only if it was in Holland  (they have suffered too many wet and hilly UK cycle holidays!). In the end the kids pulled out and so just me and Mrs Lordonabike made the trip. I thought a bit about the infrastructure compared to the UK - more of which is in a previous blog Proof of the Appelgebakken

I have been to the Netherlands many times but always to conferences, study tours and work meetings in the bigger cities. I didn't know what to expect from the countryside. We spent a couple of days wandering north through the dunes up the coast from the Hook of Holland before heading inland towards the Utrecht Ridge and the Hooge Veluwe National Park and then followed the great rivers towards west, with a long weekend in the coastal province of Zeeland before catching the boat to Hull.

At the risk of upsetting the Dutch I have to say that the scenery was pleasant enough but not spectacular. The agricultural heartlands of the Netherlands are just that; agriculture on an industrial scale. In the south and east however, the countryside gets better as it starts to undulate into more varied heathlands, forests, vineyards, meadows and valleys leading to the Rhine and other great rivers.

Well kept urban areas add significantly to the beauty of the Netherlands. The rivers carry huge freight containers, the coast has massive concrete barages to keep the tides at bay and the whole country is a network of canals and dykes. There are few 'wild' places. Perhaps the Dutch take more care with the built environment because their countryside is not so great!

There is very little specific 'cycle infrastructure' within villages and smaller towns. There are some obvious differences to the UK, mainly that nearly every pub, cafe, supermarket etc has more bike parking spaces than car parking spaces. The main difference is the extensive use of cobbles and block paving as road surfacing. This is almost universal in older villages and towns, but also widely used in newer settlements. For drivers this gives an audible and visual cue to slow down to the speed limit (usually 30 kmh). It is a simple thing, but it helps reduce the need for speed humps, chicanes etc (although these are also used) and seems to help make drivers more willing to give way to cyclists and pedestrians.

Main coastal road within a town centre, Zeeland


In April I visited Chris Boardman's home town of West Kirby on the Wirral peninsula. It is an attractive and quite genteel place with a lovely promenade, sandy beaches and a central shopping area dating from Victorian times. The only transport 'problem' in the town is the busy main road that effectively slices the place in two and makes it too dangerous for children to travel independently, and leaves everybody else scurrying across. Its the usual vicious circle where many people drive short distances because walking and cycling has become hazardous and unpleasant. Chris's challenge was: How would we 'Cycle Proof' a typical small town?

Boardman in transport planner mode

West Kirby is not a huge place and you don't have to be Chris Boardman to cycle from one end to the other in under ten minutes, in fact most of the built up area is within a ten minute walk of the centre. You can read more about what I recommended at British Cycling Tour of West Kirby

Visualisation of the main road through West Kirby

When we were walking back to the station we bumped into an attractive woman. 'That's Daniel Craig's sister.' Said Chris Boardman. My day was beginning to feel like an episode of Stellar Street. 'We thought Daniel was a ponce at school with all that acting crap, but he's doing alright now isnt he?!'  Lots of people in West Kirby recognised Chris (and he recognised them), not just because he's famous, but also because he's local, and regularly walks and cycles to the cafe and the pub. When we met again a few weeks later, I too was welcomed back in the station cafe, and I'm not famous.

It's a small thing but I have noticed that even a quiet person like me gets to meet a lot of people when on foot or bike. Consequently I rarely feel threatened by 'society' because almost without exception the young or old, rich or poor of our country are pretty friendly. Some of my friends who drive everywhere seem perpetually worried about crime, mugging, teenagers, or indeed anyone who is 'different' to them. I lived in the same house in Birmingham for ten years but there were some people in our street that I just never met because they only ever walked from their front door to the car. I dont know if there's any research to back this up, but I'm sure you just get to know more (and more varied) people if you walk and cycle a lot. If you just hang out with people like yourself, such as work colleagues (or even other cyclists!), that probably is a bit unhealthy in shaping your view of the world. It's good to meet people who challenge your beliefs and live different lives. There is an oft quoted piece of research by Donald Appleyard that showed how the amount of traffic had a dramatic impact on social connections in a street:

In the late 1960s Appleyard conducted a renowned study on livable streets, comparing three residential streets in San Francisco which on the surface did not differ on much else but their levels of traffic. The 2,000 vehicles per day street was considered Light Street, 8,000 traveled on Medium Street and 16,000 vehicles passing down Heavy Street. His research showed that residents of Light Street had three more friends and twice as many acquaintances as the people on Heavy Street.

Appleyard's diagrammatic image of social connections in streets

The other flipside about cycling is illustrated in Chris's mate Ned Boulting's book 'On the Road Bike' where he describes what happened when a cycle repair shop opened up next door to his local barber, Ahmet (I've abridged his original prose):

"Suddenly in the summer of 2012 there was the confluence of two events. The first was an almighty traffic jam, it took him an hour to drive the 3 miles from home. The second was that a bike repair shop opened next door. Ahmet took notice and bought a bike. The bike shop owner told him there was a cycle path almost all the way from his house to the shop, through a park and along a river. Ahmet now rides to work with pride and delight every day, and no trip to the barber is complete without a discussion on cycling.

He's had new bike racks installed outside the shop. He recommends Marks bike shop to his customers and Mark has brought new customers to Ahmet, middle-class men who would normally never have considered the Village Barber's at the end of the road."

Ask any successful business where they get most customers from and they will invariably say 'personal recommendations'. Small businesses need local custom to generate that kind of marketing and can't survive so easily in a car-based society.

We don't often think about these fringe benefits (yes, awful pun) when making the case for investment in cycling. It's hard to prove with any certainty that walking and cycling foster social cohesion and mental well being by providing more human contact. It's hard to argue that small towns and villages where people currently live largely car dependent lives will suddenly transform into 'better places' if we restrict rather than facilitate car use. By definition, towns and villages are geographically small, so they should lend themselves to walking and cycling. If people shop locally, jobs and services in the towns are more easily preserved as money spent locally stays within the local economy, and the poorest and most vulnerable don't have additional travel costs to find work, education or healthcare. When people meet and interact with their fellow villagers in the pub, cafes, streets and shops they may not always agree with one another, but problems such as crime and extremism are less likely. We need to give the same priority to non-motorised transport in smaller settlements that we do in the great cities, not only to address traffic issues, but to ensure a healthy population and sustainable economy.